Livin’ B1G: Big Ten Basketball’s Wide-Open Race

The Big Ten season is about to begin, and the race is as unpredictable as it’s been in recent years. In this edition of Livin’ B1G, we’ll examine some of the storylines ahead of conference play.

Non-conference play often brings out the wackiness of college basketball. Teams bounce around the AP Top 25 from week to week, with top squads matching up against each other and random upsets being a possibility on any given night.

No Big Ten team has followed that pattern more than Indiana. The Hoosiers shot up to No. 3 in the poll with a win over Kansas in Hawaii, then lost a stunner at IPFW only 11 days later. They moved back into the top 10 with a home win over North Carolina before losing to Butler in Indianapolis. Now Indiana is heading into conference play at No. 16, the lowest of the three ranked Big Ten teams.

Wisconsin comes in at No. 14 with Purdue one spot behind, and both have shown flashes of being Final Four contenders while also tipping their hand at some of their deficiencies. And that’s before the grinding, physical conference play.

The Big Ten is knowing for teams beating each other up night in and night out, and Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin appear to be the teams most equipped for handling it. But this season, there are more teams with a legitimate shot to win the conference title than usual. Let’s take a look at why that’s the case in this edition of Livin’ B1G.

Caleb Swanigan is a beast

The three-time Big Ten Player of the Week this season is making his case to be the conference’s player of the year. Biggie is averaging 18.3 points and 12.5 rebounds while showing a nice 3-point touch having hit 11 of 21 from downtown. He averaged 26.5 points and 20.5 rebounds in wins over Norfolk State and Western Illinois this past week.

Swanigan, the one-time Michigan State commit, has made drastic improvements from his freshman season, proving that his decision to return rather than enter the NBA draft is sure to improve his stock. But he’s not the only reason the Boilermakers will make a run at their first outright Big Ten title since winning three straight under Gene Keady from 1994-96.

Seven-footer Isaac Haas is averaging 14.3 points, with Vincent Edwards (11.8) and standout freshman Carsen Edwards (10.4) also averaging in double figures.

Wisconsin’s Big 3

The Badgers began the year as the Big Ten favorite after a surprising run to the Sweet 16. That’s not a surprise, considering Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ all returned from that squad. Koenig is averaging 14.6 points with Hayes adding 13.5, but it’s Happ’s play that will most determine Wisconsin’s destiny.

Happ impressed as a freshman last year and has picked up right where he left off. He’s averaging 12.9 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists while shooting 69.2 percent from the field, a mark that ranks sixth in the nation. There are some talented big men in the conference, and Happ is among the elite.

Indiana has the most talent

It’s tough to argue that any Big Ten team is more talented than the Hoosiers. They trot out James Blackmon, Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby every night – along with the improved Robert Johnson – making for one of the best cores in the country. Blackmon is the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer, while Bryant and Anunoby are going to first-round picks in the NBA draft.

Consistency will be key, though, as the season goes on. Indiana has shown it can hang with the big boys, but it has been susceptible to falling to perceived lesser opponents. If the Hoosiers can minimize those off nights and bring the same energy every game – not just against the top contenders – they can make a deep run in March.

Michigan State needs Miles Bridges

The Spartans brought in one of coach Tom Izzo’s most heralded recruiting classes featuring Bridges, Josh Langford, Nick Ward and Cassius Winston. Bridges is the best of them all, but he’s missed five straight games with an ankle injury, and it’s looking like he’ll miss Tuesday’s conference opener against Minnesota – and maybe more.

Bridges, who was averaging 16.6 points and 8.8 rebounds before getting hurt, is one of the most talented freshmen in the nation and long has been considered a one-and-done player. But his absence and Langford not being able to find a good rhythm led to the Spartans going just 8-5 in non-conference play, including hitting a low point with a home loss to Northeastern after losing to Arizona, Kentucky and Duke with Bridges in the lineup.

The three healthy freshmen started Wednesday’s win over Oakland, and all signs point to Izzo starting all four once Bridges returns. Ward was named the conference’s freshman of the week and has been the most surprising of Izzo’s class, but if the Spartans want to have any chance of competing for a conference title, they’ll need Bridges to be at the top of his game when he returns.

Are Maryland and Minnesota for real?

Both teams enter Big Ten play at 12-1, but neither has a very impressive win. The Terps are going to have to ride Melo Trimble after losing Diamond Stone, Jake Layman and Rasheed Sulaimon from last year’s 27-9 squad that reached the Sweet 16. Trimble is averaging a full two assists fewer than last season, but his scoring is up to 17.9 points per game. The Terps’ first true test will be Jan. 10 against Indiana.

The Gophers, meanwhile, are vastly improved from last year’s 8-23 mark and have their sights set on their first NCAA Tournament berth under Richard Pitino. Freshman Amir Coffey is someone to keep an eye on, while Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer have been great. Minnesota will find out quickly how good it really is with games against Michigan State, Purdue and Northwestern to tip off Big Ten play.

Can Northwestern make its first NCAA Tournament?

The Wildcats hired local product and former Duke star (and longtime Blue Devils assistant) Chris Collins to end their NCAA Tournament drought. It seems strange to think Northwestern is the only major-conference team yet to appear in the Big Dance, but Collins has it one its way in his fourth season.

Northwestern’s only two losses are to Butler and Notre Dame by a combined six points, and a healthy Vic Law, who missed all of last season due to injury, has been a real boost. The Wildcats don’t have any star power – Scottie Lindsey is their leading score at 14.9 points per game – but they’ve got enough all-around talent to compete in the conference. If Northwestern can win the games its supposed to, and pull off a couple of stunners – particularly on the road – we could see the Wildcats dancing in March.

What about us?

… Iowa has dropped off big time from last season, but Peter Jok is the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 22.6 points per game and will keep the Hawkeyes in plenty of games.

… No one really knows what to expect of Michigan. Losses to South Carolina and Virginia Tech marred a decent non-conference slate, which included an 18-point loss at No. 2 UCLA. The Wolverines will need Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton and Moritz Wagner to kick it up a notch, but they have a fairly easy start to Big Ten play with Iowa, Penn State, Maryland, Illinois and Nebraska as their first five.

… This could be John Groce’s last chance to turn around Illinois. The Fighting Illini are 10-3, but a home loss to Winthrop is part of that resume. They go as Malcolm Hill plays, as he’s averaging 18.4 points to rank as one of the conference’s top scoring threats.

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